UNLV mental health expert offers tips on coping during the coronavirus shutdown


John Locher / AP

People wait in line for help with unemployment benefits at the One-Stop Career Center, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Las Vegas.

Wed, Mar 18, 2020 (2 a.m.)

As residents begin to grapple with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Southern Nevadans are coming to terms with not only the dangers of this novel coronavirus, but how it’s impacting their daily lives.

The state ordered casinos and all other non-essential businesses to close to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, meaning thousands are without work and under financial strain. Las Vegas-area students are no longer attending class in person, instead learning online. Shoppers are greeted by empty shelves at stores, creating panic buying when supplies are found.

Soon, many will have no other choice but to stay home and practice “social distancing,” a notion that creates much anxiety and dissonance among human beings who are by nature “social animals,” UNLV psychologist Stephen Benning said.

It’s a lot to digest. Benning shares some pointers to help:

Think social spacing, not social distancing

The term “social distancing” can carry a lot of weight for humans who thrive on interpersonal connections. Maintaining deep, meaningful connections with people is not only acceptable during this time, it’s critical to the global psyche. That’s why he prefers to call it “social spacing.”

“When people hear of distancing, they think of withdrawing in a general way from society, rather than simply being physically apart from people,” he said. “It challenges people to think about technological means before overcoming what it is, and allows people to conceptualize using things like Skype, phone calls, instant messaging and group chats.”

He said the goal is to achieve simple physical space between people rather than the interpersonal distancing effect that the notion of social distancing entails.

How to maintain a sense of normalcy at home

Benning urges those who are either working from home or are on self-quarantine to maintain a schedule.

“Even though there might be a tendency to think, ‘Oh well, I’ll just do whatever, whenever I want to,’ that can lead to people feeling like they don’t have as much structure in their existence,” he said.

He suggests getting dressed every morning, or even wearing the clothes you might wear to work, and changing into something else at the end of the day. He also urges people to keep a strict schedule of when they are “on and off the clock” so their work life doesn’t bleed into their home life.

For those with kids, online resources like Scholastic offers online activities for a variety of grade levels.

Those without the luxury of being able to work from home, especially those who lost their jobs, will naturally find maintaining this sense of normalcy even more challenging.

“This is one situation where finding people who are in a similar situation and able to understand what’s going on may be useful,” he said, noting how social media is going to be a significant asset for those who find themselves in this position. “Having someone who is in the same boat as you will allow you to feel like you’re not isolated and not alone in all of this.”

Taking actionable, concrete measures like researching food banks and how to apply for unemployment can help mitigate the helplessness of the situation as well.

When to unplug

While social media can serve as a tremendous asset for community resilience during such dire times, Benning also strongly urges people to set timers for themselves — say, 15 to 20 minutes with four-hour breaks — to space out their social media and news intake.

“One of the problems that comes with this really uncertain situation is people are anxious because they’re withdrawn from their general lives and they’re looking around for information but it’s an uncertain set of circumstances so it will feed their anxiety, rather than alleviate it.” he said.

Taking breaks from news and social media to have deeper, one-on-one interactions with people through video messaging is much more beneficial to an individual’s overall mental health, Benning said.

Resources for those with preexisting mental health conditions

For those with severe forms of depression that makes them withdraw from the world, extraordinary situations like a global pandemic will naturally heighten their distress.

“Social distancing forces a withdrawal from the world rather than allowing them to continue in their meaningful relationships,” he said.

The outbreak could also restrict people’s access to mental health care, with the possibility of in-person appointments getting canceled.

That’s why services like Telehealth are going to be more important than ever, he added. UNLV’s community mental health clinic, The Practice, is adopting ways to continue appointments online.

“Even for those who aren’t high-risk people, we still want to check in on them on a weekly basis to see how things are going and see if their status has changed in any way,” he said.

To learn more about getting affordable mental health care online, visit unlv.edu/thepractice or call 702-895-1532.

“We try to maintain as close to an in-person session as we can,” Benning said. “We also try to help people maintain deeper interpersonal connections and remind them of things that can be done from a distance, like book clubs and gameboard nights to replicate online."

Online therapy resources are also an option. Talkspace, for example, offers text-based communication, audio and video messaging with costs starting at $65 a week. BetterHelp offers similar services for prices between $35 and $70 a week, depending on income.

How do I talk to my kids about what’s been going on?

When your kids ask questions about what’s going on and why they have to stay inside, Benning suggests sharing the “very basics” of what is known.

“I tell my (5-year-old son), ‘This does not seem to be something that hurts kids if they get it, and if you do get it, it’ll be like getting a cold.’ I try to help him make connections with his existing experiences,” he said.

Benning said it is also important to put things in perspective for young children, and remind them why they are taking on these added social distancing measures.

“Trying to explain exponential growth to a 5-year-old is a little more than I think we can do,” he said. “So I keep things in terms of keeping him and Mommy and Daddy safe.”

Older children on the other hand might want more specific answers to their questions, Benning said. For teenagers, he suggests showing them reputable sites like cdc.gov and the Southern Nevada Health District, as well as what sort of information is trustworthy versus what is not. He also said if they’re expressing any kind of anxiety, to validate what they’re feeling.

“Help them understand … that what they’re feeling is understandable and acceptable, but then explain to them what you’re doing about it, ” he said.

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